Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Empathic Brain Network and Spiritual Development

In my previous post Natural Awakening Without Intense Meditation I discussed an article in which Buddhadasa Bhikkhu uses the term "spiritual well-being". I believe this state of spiritual well-being is referring to a state where the empathic network in the brain is active. Having the empathic network active will enhance any type of spiritual practice.

Research has shown that because of the structure of the brain, analytical thinking and empathic thinking are mutually exclusive.

Scientists have discovered that the brain circuits we engage when we think about social matters, such as considering other people’s views, or moral issues, inhibit the circuits that we use when we think about inanimate, analytical things, such as working on a physics problem or making sure the numbers add up when we balance our budget. And they say, the same happens the other way around: the analytic brain network inhibits the social network. ... When not doing anything in particular, our brains switch between social and analytic networks. But, when working on a goal-directed task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathways, say the researchers.
The analytical network has a tendency to produce callous thinking. This is believed to by why some economic and political policies fail because they ignore human realities. The policy makers were out of balance, thinking only analytically and not empathically.

When the empathic network is active, it can produce a spiritual feeling  or a "pleasant relaxed mood", where feelings of compassion, forgiveness, goodwill, humility, equanimity, serenity, and connectedness are common and where the jhanas are easily accessible.

It is possible to learn to recognize when your empathic network is active and learn to activate it at will if it is not active. Just knowing about the two networks might help you understand your own experiences and allow you to activate the empathic network whenever you want to.

If you are not sure what it feels like to have the empathic network active, try metta mediation, or samatha meditation, or jhana meditation, or relaxation exercises. When your empathic network is active, you may experience a pleasant relaxed mood with feelings of compassion, forgiveness, goodwill, humility, equanimity, serenity, and connectedness.

Having the empathic network active will enhance any type of meditation practice.

I recommend meditating with the empathic network active. Analytical thinking is good for many things and I think both networks should be developed to be in balance. But I think it is more likely that the relief from suffering, the insights, and the realizations people are seeking from meditation are more likely to come from the empathic network than the analytical network. And having the empathic network active has a soothing, healing, influence on the mind.

It is often said that intellectual understanding alone is not enough to trigger awakening. Also, a lot of suffering comes from analytical thinking. We worry about the future, we over analyze things, we go over the past repeatedly, we obsess about status etc. This is all analytical thinking. 

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He explains, using slightly different terminology for the brain networks, how having the wrong network active in the brain causes suffering.

One pathway is a mid-line pathway, very akin to what is called a default mode, that seems to be functioning when nothing else is supposed to be happening — like being or mind wandering, or something like that, which is what they call the narrative network for self. So like what you tell yourself about who you are, where you’re going, how things are going, how stressed you are, how great it’s going to be in the future, how horrible it was in the past, or vice-versa, how wonderful it was in the past, or how horrible it is in the present. So it is a narrative ongoing story of me. And that occupies a certain kind of brain territory.
In a podcast, Dr Kabat-Zinn descrbes this kind of thinking as "the story of me."

But what if you could reassign neurons away from the network that produces suffering and "the story of me" and reassign them to producing feelings of compassion, forgiveness, goodwill, humility, equanimity, serenity, and connectedness? This is possible because of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to rewire itself, assigning neurons to pathways that are used more often and reassigning neurons away from pathways that are used less often.

That is exactly what Buddhadasa Bhikkhu is saying to do when he says:

".. we simply encourage (nirvana) to come about of its own accord, naturally, by developing, day and night, the joy that results from mental purity, until the qualities we have described gradually evolve. ...We do it just by making our own way of daily living so pure and honest that there arise in succession spiritual joy, calm, insight into the true nature of things, disenchantment, disentanglement, escape, purification from defilements, and finally peace, nirvana."
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu says you can do this without a meditation practice. 

But you can also do it in conjunction with any meditation practice. Try to learn to recognize when you empathic network is active, and get a feel of how to activate it, and then live and meditate with your empathic network active.

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